A former soldier and a charity worker is calling on a local authority to help accommodate more families fleeing Afghanistan after it said it could only manage to provide ten extra households despite being offered the use of 38 vacant Ministry of Defence (MOD) homes.
Catterick Garrison charity worker Mark Hill, who twice served in Afghanistan, and Colburn and Hipswell councillor Kevin Foster, who served in the Army for three decades, said they felt North Yorkshire had a moral duty to do what it could to help Afghan evacuees who had risked their lives to help British troops and faced greater peril following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The comments come ahead of North Yorkshire County Council’s executive meeting on Tuesday to consider its response to an offer of temporarily using 38 vacant homes for service families as several thousand people eligible to come to the UK under the government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy remain in Afghanistan.
The policy was launched in 2021 to reflect the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and consequent serious risk to life of Afghan locally-employed staff.
Afghan citizens who are eligible for relocation to the UK may relocate with a partner, dependent children and additional family members who are also deemed eligible for relocation. Those arriving in the UK under the scheme are granted indefinite leave to remain.
An officer’s report to the executive states while the MOD had offered a further 38 properties to house the evacuees, 13 of those properties were unsuitable as they were in remote locations, while the remaining 25 were in Catterick Garrison.
The report states: “In assessing the offer, existing pressures on local services in particular school places, access to services and staff resources have been considered by county council staff. The presence of existing volunteer support groups and other infrastructure in the area, including venues for the English classes, has also been factored in, as have existing refugee resettlement demands in the county on the housing supply.”
The authority’s executive member for stronger communities, Councillor David Chance, said some of the Afghan families needed significant amounts of specialised support, such as for physical injuries or mental issues, and the council did not think it fair on them to leave them “out on a limb”.
He said the proposed number of families was being restricted due to “pressures on support”.
Coun Chance said: “We can handle ten families at the moment. There is a lot of support needed. We always try to take what we consider to be our fair share.
“There are a number of families who’ve been settled on the garrison and they’ve settled in well, they’ve got good support there and the military have put their arm round them as well.
“For me, it’s about putting people where they’ll settle quickly and easily. There are other MOD properties around North Yorkshire, but they’re isolated. These people need to be with their own communities wherever possible.”
The officer’s report stated the use of empty MOD properties meant it would not put an immediate extra strain on housing, but eventually the Afghan families would need to be offered affordable housing around North Yorkshire, which there is a critical shortage.
The report states: “There is a risk of community tensions arising in view of the families being accommodated in MOD properties, albeit empty ones, and then being offered permanent affordable housing. Mitigations to be put in place would include avoiding placing families in areas where community tensions are likely.”
Established in 1915, the British Army’s largest Garrison town has until recently often had a deficit of housing for the dependants of its military population, so families have been housed in relatively costly lease hire properties in Darlington and Leeming Bar, or even at hotels.
Coun Foster, who served in the Army for three decades, called on the council to consider accepting Afghan families for all of the vacant MOD houses.
He said: “I think we have a moral duty to look after people who helped our soldiers while they were in combat in Afghanistan. We left and left them to their own devices, but we need to look after them.
“The Afghan community seems to be doing ok in Catterick Garrison and I think it’s the right area for them to be in as there are support groups and gardening club already set up for them. I think there is enough infrastructure for more than ten extra Afghan families.”
Mark Hill, of charity Shape-UK, which offers provision for sport and health activities or gaining basic vocational skills, said an array of initiatives to support Afghan families had sprung up in Catterick Garrison over the last two years, such as English lessons in the library, and the adult men were all getting jobs in the community.
Mr Hill, who twice served in Afghanistan, said: “I would like to do more. If there were more families coming, I for one would step up to the mark. We are set up in the garrison to do just that.
“If there’s accommodation for them I think there is resources and support for them in the community. Probably more than anywhere else because of the way the garrison is set up.”